Panama Series: Educational Ecotourism in Boquete

If anyone ever asks me what my favorite part of Panama is, I’ll without a doubt say Boquete. Which may seem shocking to some people, as it’s not by the coast, it’s calm and quiet and absolutely not the place to go if you’re planning to party all night and sunbathe all day. In fact, your grandma might have a lot more fun than you will, as a lot of the people who have settled down in this idyllic little town are old, retired North Americans. 

So how can I possibly prefer Boquete over places like Panama City or any of the beach towns with a young cool vibe?

I have plenty of reasons for that.

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First of all, I’m not a party girl (anymore). My days of clubbing until dawn and daytime drunken shenanigans are way behind me. I’m turning thirty in two months. Thirty. That number tastes bitter on my tongue, even more bitter than the lemon or lime or whatever it is they serve with your tequila shot. I’ll rather sit down and enjoy an ice cold draft or bottled beer at Boquete Brewing Company (photo above) over a fun conversation with my travel partners (my boyfriend and his parents in this case) and move on to dinner and cocktails (or wine) at one of the amazing restaurants in town – such as Argentinian restaurant La Posada Boquetena (side note: they have the best coconut lemonade imaginable) and Italian restaurant RetroGusto Restaurant & Bar (excellent place for a romantic date). And the coffee shop in our hotel, Hotel Central Boquete, serve the most amazing coffee ever. You must try their raspberry mocha. It sounds weird, I know, but it’s magical. So is their plain, non-fancy black cup of Joe. Coffee in Boquete – no matter what coffee shop or restaurant you go to – tastes a hundred times better than any coffee I’ve ever had before. Trust me, I’ve had a lot of coffee these past fifteen years.  And no, frappuccino’s are not coffee. It’s liquid candy.

I will talk more about coffee later in this post, but first I’d like to talk a little more about our hotel – which brings us to my second reason for loving Boquete:

Tim, the owner, and his lovely wife.

After a night at the “strangers’ bodily fluids and hairs fest” hotel in Santa Catalina, it felt amazing to be greeted with kindness and professionalism, when arriving at Hotel Central Boquete. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in the US, it’s how easy it is to bond with Americans. Tim was no exception. He had a look at my ID and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was Norwegian (at least half, anyway). “I am Norwegian too”, he said, and told me about his family in Norway, where they were from and which Norwegian specialties he’s particularly fond of. I love talking about food, and I love talking about my country, so my frown was turned upside down within seconds. Even more so when I got my coffee.

“Our room is so clean I can still smell the cleaning products!”. I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm. A clean room. What a luxurious feeling!

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After a night in the dirtiest hotel imaginable, I was probably scarred for life.

We returned to the reception and asked Tim to help us book a couple of day-tours for the following days in Boquete. We wanted to go bird watching and were also interested in booking a coffee tour. A lot of the tours scheduled for the following day were already fully booked, but as luck seemed to be on our side, Tim didn’t give up on calling every single tour company he knew – and managed to schedule us in for a bird watching tour the next day, followed by a butterfly, bees and honey tour in the afternoon, and a coffee tour the day after that.

The birdwatching tour (which I would’ve posted a link to, had I known the name of the company) was a 4 km hike up the pipeline trail in Boquete. It’s an easy hike as long as you’re not stuck hiking in the pouring rain….like we were. Whether it was because of the rain or just a matter of bad luck, spotting any birds was not an easy task. We were kind of expecting to see the beautiful quetzales, after reading guidebooks and articles basically guaranteeing that we’d spot these fascinating birds when in Boquete. We didn’t.

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What we did see, were the occasional bright green birds, yellow and some red ones (itsy bitsy teeny tiny birds) – and on our way back we discovered a family of monkeys jumping from one tree to another. My partner managed to capture a few shots from afar, although the quality of the photos are rather questionable and we had to be quick to avoid heavy raindrops from attacking the camera.

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We found a little lizard, as well. The little guy escaped quite rapidly, but we managed to take a photo with him before he took off. The rain seemed to be getting heavier and heavier, and the ground more and more slippery. Dragonflies the size of my index finger, hovered like helicopters before flying away. Thirsty mosquito’s attempted to come close but flew away when sensing the awful scent of the insect repellent.

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Although we hadn’t seen as many birds as we were hoping to see – and even though it was raining during the entire tour – we were still very pleased with what we’d seen. It was an amazing hike and the guide was professional and clearly passionate about bird watching.

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The second tour that day was even better. And it stopped raining. Now, here’s yet another reason why I love Boquete: the educational aspect. I don’t travel to “switch off my brain” and just rest. In fact, I hate resting – sleeping excluded. I love sleeping. And when I’m done sleeping, I just wanna get dressed, eat a nice big meal and get out there and learn some interesting facts that may or may not change the way I see things in life. Our tour with Boquete Bees taught me that there is such a thing as STINGLESS BEES. People who know me, know I’m terrified of wasps and bees – even adorable bumblebees. If they had seen me standing in front of a beehive without any protection, without freaking out and making a scene, they’d probably say the beehive is fake and the insects flying around are probably just flies or something. As soon as the guide informed us that the bees on this farm were all stingless and completely harmless, I managed to let go of my fears. Maybe this will even help me relax a bit more around the bees we have in Europe. I know how important bees are to the ecosystem. Without them, all life on earth will die.

The tour continued to a butterfly conservatory, similar to the one we had visited in El Valle de Anton. We spent a while admiring the beautiful creatures and photographing them as they were resting, eating or fluttering gracefully. I enjoyed every second of it – obsessed with butterflies, as I am.

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The garden of the property had a small coffee plantation, vegetable garden, pineapples and plenty of gorgeous, colorful flowers. Have you ever eaten a flower? We tasted some. Yup, they were good. No, I’m not crazy (not more than the average woman, anyway).

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We finished the tour with a grand finale inside of the main building. It was time for a real honey tasting experience! I don’t even remember how many different kinds of honey we had lined up in front of us, but it was a lot. Maybe thirty different ones?

Fun fact: Did you know that honey is actually bee vomit? 

Our honey tasting didn’t consist of just plain honey. There were blends of honey/cacao, honey/chili, honey/lavender, honey/ginger and a lot more. Even the basic honey didn’t taste “basic” or “plain”. It tasted divine. The guide poured us a glass of some sort of honey wine and some honey liqueur. I wasn’t a fan. We ended up buying some honey to take home, though. We would have been fools not to support these amazing people who work so hard to educate visitors on the importance of the protection of bees, protection of different butterfly species, growing organic coffee and vegetables. It feels good to spend money on good causes!

Our last tour in Boquete was another educational experience – and I can’t decide which tour was my favorite, between the previous one and this one. This was the coffee tour I had been looking forward to ever since we made it to Panama. I love coffee and I was interested in learning more about the farming, production and marketing of Panamanian coffee. Our tour was with a guide named Carlos at Cafe Ruiz. Carlos was the funniest tour guide I’ve ever met and I’m surprised he doesn’t consider becoming a stand-up comedian – because that guy has skills (check out Cafe Ruiz on TripAdvisor and you’ll see I’m not the only fan). Even when talking about serious subjects, such as how the coffee production in Panama is decreasing due to locals who sell their land so that North American migrants can build their gated communities there, he still added a little tongue-in-cheek humor to even the touchiest subjects. I can’t help but feeling sad for the locals, and I admire his ability to speak so lightheartedly about it.

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I didn’t know that little white flowers grow on the coffee trees. Nor did I know that coffee beans are green before they’re roasted. And I definitely didn’t know that light roast coffee is the strongest in caffeine and has no bitter aftertaste, whereas dark roast contains way less caffeine and has a strong, bitter aftertaste. You know, the taste that makes a lot of people put milk and sugar in their coffee.

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The tour finished with a trip to the coffee shop, where we did a coffee tasting. As you may have guessed, the light roast came out as the big winner. As if the coffee tasting and the stand-up comedy wasn’t already 35 dollars well spent, Carlos gave us a goodie bag with our own bags of coffee, some biscuits, a postcard – inside of a really cool Tote bag made from an actual coffee sack. We’ve kept them and use them for our groceries. Strangers have even complimented me on them. Thank you Carlos – for everything!

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Now that you’ve read this post, I’m sure you have a better understanding for why I love Boquete and why some of my most wonderful memories from my trip to Panama, were made here. I feel educated. I feel like I spent my money on things that matter. People that matter. People that contribute to making this world a better place.

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Next: Hiking and chilling in an ecolodge in Cerro Punta 

 

 

 

 

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Panama Series: Cool and Colorful Pedasi

Headed 210 kilometers, direction south, ready to exchange the steep hills and windy weather with sunshine and sandy beaches on the Pacific coastline. We had absolutely no activities planned for the day, besides drinking cocktails, soaking up some sun and cool down in the water. I’m fine with that…When it’s just for a day. What you should know about me is that I’m someone who gets easily bored and I actually hate sunbathing (which is why I’m always pale) and swimming in the sea gets kind of boring after a while, when there’s no other activity involved (such as snorkeling, volleyball or whatever).

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We made it to one of the most colorful towns I had ever seen. Modern street art on every white wall, vibrant colored houses, colorful fountains – and a huge sign welcoming us as we entered the town. “Pedasi” was written in multicolored capital letters, with a much more subtle hashtag “visit Panama” below. I remembered to add that hashtag to everything posted on my social media platforms from then on. Maybe the local tourism board would notice me and give me some freebies? Or at least a friendly discount on one of the local tours – or maybe a free drink somewhere? Note; none of that never happened. 

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Our hotel, Residencial Santa Catalina , was conveniently located in the town center and had all the facilities we needed. As we’d already been on the road for a good week, we figured it was a good idea to use the laundry service provided by the hotel. Although there wasn’t really any laundry service on-site. Still, the receptionist offered to take our laundry elsewhere and have it done for us and didn’t even ask for any payment. Fair enough. Later that evening, we received our freshly washed laundry – folded and everything. Even my tiny underwear was folded. As a very sensitive person, I got ridiculously emotional looking at my pile of folded undies and once smelly hiking wear that now smelled like a rose garden. I think my boyfriend’s mother felt the same way, as we both had the idea to leave the lady a generous tip. It would have been even more generous, had we known what would happen at another hotel, four days later..

What was supposed to be one of the nicer beaches in the area, was a little drive outside of town, so we took the car and went to check it out. The beach was crowded. People, their dogs, parked cars and lots of non-recyclable trash everywhere. Lovely. We stopped to take a few pictures and got back in the car to locate another supposedly nice beach. With some help from Google, rather than our outdated guidebook, we managed to find one. This one was way less crowded, and a little less littered than the other one. We decided to stay.

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Nobody were in the water except from us and a bunch of tiny grey fish jumping out of the water and dancing around us. Fish in Panama seem to be a lot less afraid of people than fish anywhere else I’ve been. Why is that?

I enjoyed the moment to the fullest. The clear blue sky, the sunshine, the crystal clear water, the calm atmosphere, the escape from time… and it all came crashing down when we witnessed a dog taking a dump right in front of us, and watched the waves crash into his fresh produce. “That’s it, I’m out”, I said to everyone and got out of the water. Yes, I know there’s probably a lot more poo in the water than just this one – after all, fish poo in it. I just never felt the need to witness it in action. And where were the owners of the dog anyway?

As soon as we made it back to the hotel, I jumped into the shower and washed every inch of my body while picturing myself being completely covered in poo. I guess this phobia comes from an old childhood trauma of mine. I’ll tell you the story. So, my dad and I, went to Greece when I was fourteen years old, a year after my mother divorced him. He didn’t like the overcrowded beaches, and neither did I, so we walked along the beach, probably two kilometers or more, in search of a more secluded place. And we found one. There were literally no one there. Just us. It was simply too good to be true. We jumped right in. It smelled kind of weird there, but we didn’t think much of it….that was until we saw a “no swimming” sign, sewage pipes and…you guessed it, POO. Lot’s of it. Terrified, we ran out of the water as if we were running away from sharks, and headed directly to the hotel to get rid of the feces glued to our skin. Awful.

Meanwhile in Panama, I finished my shower and put on a nice skirt and one of my favorite shirts (which my boyfriend refers to as one of my hippie shirts). I was all set and thirsty for cocktails. We discovered a Mexican restaurant called Tortuga’s – a great place for fajitas, tacos and homemade cocktails (which included fresh juice). The food was good and service was great. Our French-Canadian waitress seemed quite relieved when she realized she didn’t have to speak English with us as we are all French speakers. Immediately, she went from nervous to relaxed and talkative and let her bubbly personality shine through.

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Our lazy day in Pedasi had been an interesting one. A similar kind of day in a different destination was lined up for the following day. Next stop, Santa Catalina!